Discussion with CDC Director
Discussion with CDC Director

Covid-19 has shown how the economy and public health are intertwined. A global pandemic has affected businesses in a number of ways, from lack of access to capital to managing sick workers to adjusting their business operations to meet the needs of the current environment.

As Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Mandy Cohen, MD, MPH, leads efforts to protect public health and safety by controlling and preventing disease. Director Cohen is an internal medicine physician and led the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I recently spoke with Director Cohen about the connection between public health and business, CDC’s priorities, and ways business owners can help. Below is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Rhett Buttle: Director Cohen, you have been at CDC for just over eight months. Tell us about your time in this position and how it’s going.

Director Cohen: Well first of all, I’m really proud of the team. We’ve learned a lot of lessons over the course of the pandemic, and we’re really applying them. We prioritize clear communication, operational excellence, strong partnerships and make sure we are ready to respond to any health threat that comes our way. CDC is an asset to this country in protecting health and improving lives, and I hope people have seen how we responded to the fall and winter respiratory season by trying to give people an easy way to protect themselves with vaccination, good hygiene, -clean air, testing and treatment.

I’ve traveled a lot around the country to see the good work that’s being done everywhere, and recently I’ve been overseas to see how the CDC works internationally as well, protecting health so we can identify infectious diseases and make sure we never reach our shores. I was just in Cambodia where we are working hard on bird flu. It’s something that we’re watching very closely – we’ve invested there for 20 years in terms of capacity to quickly identify bird flu, respond to it and make sure it doesn’t spread by containing it. We are also focused on mental health and reducing suicides and overdoses, as well as supporting young families.

Rhett Buttle: Can you share more about CDC’s priorities, including the work you’ve done to engage with the private sector. What should business leaders know about CDC?

Director Cohen: Many Americans became familiar with public health and the CDC during the pandemic, but there is much more to our agency. That being said, Covid-19 has shown that not being on top of health protection can really have a huge impact on our business community and economy. Being prepared is a way to keep stability in our economy, to keep people’s jobs and their businesses stable. We don’t want to go through that again, but the way we do it is to be ready to respond, and that’s our top priority at CDC. We need to invest in some basic capacities and capabilities to make this possible. One is the data. We need data, we need it fast, we need it shared, and we need to be able to react. Of course, we also need talented people to do this work.

Additionally, we focus on two other areas that I think are important for businesses to know. One is improving mental health. Everyone’s been through a lot with the pandemic and we’re seeing some worse mental health outcomes dampening the productivity of our businesses, so staying on top of that is really important. CDC provides data, expertise, and best practices to know how to help people recover from crisis and improve their mental health. Our data really fuels the ways we think about how to invest resources in the mental health space.

We are also focused on supporting young families who are the workforce of the business. We want to help mothers have a healthy pregnancy and then vaccinate their children. We want to keep parents healthy by helping them stop smoking and take steps to improve their basic health. This leads to better workplace productivity and less absenteeism, and so businesses should want a strong, well-funded, highly effective CDC to keep their workforce healthy.

Rhett Buttle: One of the things we learned during the pandemic was how much the CDC depends heavily on gaining the trust and support of the public. Can you tell us ways in which you think the private sector is helpful in achieving this goal?

Director Cohen: Public trust is at the heart of CDC’s mission to protect health and improve lives. You have to turn trust into a tactical plan. First, you need transparent, clear communication that is simple, understandable and timely. Then we focus on operations, making sure that we’re not just saying things like “Get your vaccine,” but that we’re actually making it easy for people to make easy decisions. In trying to break down barriers for people, I think this is where the business community can help us. For example, companies have delivered workplace flu clinics for many years. We will have an updated Covid-19 vaccine later this fall. If businesses can offer a Covid-19 vaccine and a flu shot on the same day for their workers, that’s a great way to protect people. We also now have an RSV vaccine and infant immunization and businesses can encourage their workers to take advantage. The last part is relationships. Because people get their information from so many different places, business leaders can be trusted sources of information as they can work with us to share these important messages about how to stay healthy.

Rhett Buttle: As you know, small business owners and entrepreneurs across the country have been struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. What lessons have been learned from the pandemic, and what should business leaders of all sizes be thinking about when it comes to CDC, public health, and your work?

Director Cohen: I think small businesses have certainly realized that stability is so important, whether it’s economic stability or health stability. We learned a big lesson about the need to prepare the infrastructure for businesses to continue to thrive. Diseases can threaten and affect us all, regardless of the size of your business. While we want to see the government invest in this asset to protect us all, there are certainly things business owners can do for themselves and their employees. One is to promote and facilitate vaccination among their employees. Another is working with them on flexible sick leave policies and strategies, including telecommuting when people are sick, to reduce the spread of these viruses and other germs.

Rhett Buttle: As you mentioned, the CDC plays an important role here at home, but also around the world. I am thinking, for example, of the CDC’s efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). How should business leaders think about this work and our global health systems in general?

Director Cohen: We’ve all learned a hard lesson that a health threat around the world is becoming a threat at our doorstep, so we can’t just work from home. We need to work internationally to identify, respond and contain outbreaks of different types of disease, but also recognize that instability in other parts of the world can cause instability here, whether that’s from a chain perspective for deliveries or other problem. Our investments in things like reducing HIV and AIDS around the world not only protect our health, but actually improve our economic stability. When these countries are stable partners, it allows us to have stability at home as well. For example, I was recently in Japan on a tour of Asia where we set up a regional office in Japan. We know Asia is a really important part of the world to make sure we increase our diplomatic ties and our ability to identify health threats and respond quickly.

Rhett Buttle: What would you add?

Director Cohen: First, I just want to reiterate that the CDC is really working hard on its mission to protect health and improve lives. We want people to know that CDC is working for them and for the continued support and partnership of businesses in what we do. Most of our dollars are not here in Atlanta at the CDC, but are invested in every single community. Approximately 80% of our dollars go to states and localities to make sure we have people protecting health and improving lives right in their own backyards.

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